why job hungry students choose useless majors

Last week, I linked to data showing that the growth degrees awarded has often come from non-vocational areas (NVA), such as the humanities. This has lead some folks, like Arnold Kling, to conjecture that this is a result of anti-profit mentalities among students.

You can test that hypothesis. The charts are from a UCLA report called The American Freshman: Thirty Year Trends – 1966-1996. It shows, using a yearly survey of freshmen, that college students are becoming more interested in making money. In 1971, about 50% went to college to make money. In the 1990s, it’s about 70%. Similarly, modern college students are more interested in financial stability, not philosophical issues. I haven’t been able to find more recent data, but I’d be surprised if that trend reversed. Also, more recent UCLA data from the 2000s shows that around 60% to 70% of college students, depending on the question, want more job career advice from their college.

Colleges are filled with people who are there because they think it will lead to jobs. So, then, why are job hungry students flooding non-vocational areas? The explanation is fairly simple.”Good” jobs require college degrees as a test of ability and emotional maturity (being able to sit and do work), even if the job itself requires no college level skills. So people go to college to avoid service sector and manual work. But not everyone has the academic ability or desire for the professional tracks (business, education, health) or the sciences/engineering. So they need something, which turns out to be these other areas. Yes, some people love Milton, but most humanities majors are there because they mildly enjoy the topic and need to get a degree. We need a way for people to credential themselves without taking on the massive un-payable debt associated with the modern humanities degree.

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Written by fabiorojas

November 7, 2011 at 12:03 am

Posted in academia, education, fabio

16 Responses

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  1. A few other possibilities to consider include the reality check students get when trying to pursue science fields (as the NY Times recently had a piece on), as you alluded to. That is, students find out that getting the high-paying job comes with classes that are just too damn hard.

    Another possibility relating to majoring in “degrees that don’t pay” relates to college admissions and finance changes over the last decade. More and more colleges charge more in tuition and fees for highly demanded majors like engineering. For example, students at my university pay about $12K a year for a sociology degree, but something like $18K for an engineering degree. In addition to these charges, colleges require different admissions standards depending on the major you plan to pursue. I’ve heard college admissions counselors here boast that it’s actually really easy to get into the University, just don’t declare that you want to major in engineering so you don’t have to have the extremely high SAT and other extras on your application to have a chance of getting in…then just take the engineering for non-majors your first year, do well, and fall in as a major your sophomore year (how successful a plan this is for students, I’m not sure as even the “non-majors” courses have a high failure rate).

    One other possibility relates to the parents, the recession, the extended time it takes someone to earn a college degree, and the rising cost of college. Parents are not able to pay as much of their children’s college education as before given the recession and the increased cost of attendance. When you couple this with the higher time-to-degree among college students today than even a decade ago (we have to have six-year graduate rates now instead of four-year rates), some parents may be pushing their kids to finish college with some type of degree so the bill is smaller…or students might decide that their loan debt will be unmanageable if they pursue the high-paying degree that will take longer to complete.



    November 7, 2011 at 3:28 am

  2. Another possibility is that the Department of Education statistics show humanities BAs have been a fairly stable percentage of degrees since 1971 (decline to mid-80s, more or less a slow rise since then) while there’s been a huge rise in business (peak in the late 80s, but still much higher than 1971) and “other” (which appears to include mostly professional/vocational degrees, and is at its highest point). Also, pre-law and pre-ed people often major in the humanities. It’s almost like those subjects have some use for them.



    November 7, 2011 at 4:50 am

  3. Again, so hard on the humanities, geesh.

    I’d wager that trend shows no change in people’s attitudes. Rather it is an increase in degree discrimination in the labor market (e.g. the paper ceiling in retail management) and the fact that newer generations of college students are more class representative (have more poor people who never gave a crap about liberal fartsy rationals for college in the first place).



    November 7, 2011 at 4:53 am

  4. Vocational majors do not necessarily translate into higher earning. Education and especially social work degrees are the very bottom end of the earnings scale, lower than humanities and quite a bit lower than social sciences: I can’t find the reference, but there is also a recent study showing that vocational majors (besides health sciences) produce higher salaries and quicker job searches right after graduation, but result in shorter career ladders over the lifetime.

    IMO, students go to school for things that sound like jobs, because that’s what they and their parents think they have to do. Students do not get good guidance in high school; in college we all just tell them to major in our own discipline since that’s how we get funding/faculty lines.



    November 7, 2011 at 2:44 pm

  5. I thought we had concluded that it was “individually rational” for high school grads to try for a college degree…even in the humanities?

    In 1970-71, humanities degrees constituted 17.1% of all bachelor’s degrees conferred. In 2008-09, humanities degrees constituted 17.5 % of all bachelor’s degrees conferred.

    I don’t get the sturm und drang. Do you have some numbers on debt and debt change? That would help.



    November 7, 2011 at 2:49 pm

  6. Typo (rounding error, actually): the 2008-2009 figure should be 17.6%.



    November 7, 2011 at 2:51 pm

  7. Per Andrew, above, the big jump since 1971 for BA degrees (other than business) has been in what NCES treats as a residual category:

    Includes Agriculture and natural resources; Architecture and related services; Communication, journalism, and related programs; Communications technologies; Family and consumer sciences/human sciences; Health professions and related clinical sciences; Legal professions and studies; Library science; Military technologies; Parks, recreation, leisure, and fitness studies; Precision production; Public administration and social services; Security and protective services; Transportation and materials moving; and Not classified by field of study.

    Without doing a lot of digging, the biggies appear to be Health and Communications.

    The latter is a major that seems murky to me. I believe most institutions treat it as part of liberal arts; it would be interesting to know something about career outcomes.

    In any event, both of these are overwhelmingly female dominated, matching the change in undergraduate demographics over recent decades.



    November 7, 2011 at 3:20 pm

  8. Well–here’s another question about classification. Do they put criminal justice/criminology in as a social science (which is how it ought to be classified at my institution), or do they classify it as social services/protective services? I know that this field has had a major jump in recent decades–at my institution the number of majors in our justice studies program has doubled in the past 10 years. And while it is vocational for probably 1/3 of our students, for the rest it is an interdisciplinary liberal arts degree.



    November 7, 2011 at 3:24 pm

  9. Re the WSJ article: should we worry about the accuracy of a report that lists “geology and earth science” as a subcategory of Arts majors?

    More seriously, thanks for posting this, Gabriel.



    November 7, 2011 at 4:43 pm

  10. First, over the course of a lifetime, a communications major at a series of low-paying white collar jobs may never pay back the principle and interest of a loan, but still net out more money than working without a degree. Sending Sallie Mae a check for $100 or $200 a month is not much worse than the billing for cable-TV, heat, electricity and less than an automobile loan.

    Second, while it is broadly true that service sector and manual labor jobs pay less than white collar work, it is not necessarily true. You do not need a degree to be successful in sales. (A communications degree would be a good choice.)

    Third, it is a truism that entrepreneurship pays more than employment, owning a styling salon or an oil change franchise, for instance. Perhaps the problem is training people to work wages rather than for opportunity.

    Re krippendorf above “…“geology and earth science” as a subcategory of Arts majors?” At the University of Texas, computer science is the college of natural sciences; but you can earn a BA in computer science. At the University of Michigan, Electrical Engineering and Computer Science are a single curriculum, within the engineering college. I am not sure that it makes a difference. This weekend, I worked with a young man near the completion of a mechanical engineering degree. His interest is in the upstream of petroleum, but he chose his major for its wider applications, though he nodded to the higher earnings in oil and gas exploration. Should we wring our hands over the bright young engineers who turn away from petroleum and abandon their fortunes to lower paying work?


    Michael E, Marotta

    November 8, 2011 at 10:34 am

  11. […] the debate on unemployment, Ryan Avent makes a common move (related post from Matt here, and Fabio here and Adam here), though I think an incorrect one: It is remarkable to me how readily old, successful […]


  12. […] the debate on unemployment, Ryan Avent makes a common move (related post from Matt here, and Fabio here and Adam here), though I think an incorrect one: It is remarkable to me how readily old, successful […]


  13. […] or humanities degree in the past. In particular, OrgTheory hosted a discussion in November titled, “why job hungry students choose useless majors.” The gist of Fabio’s argument, I think, is that college students are practical credentialists who […]


  14. […] Fabio’s November 2011 post about the profit-motivations of college students, he wrote about “why people choose useless majors”: In 1971, about 50% went to college to make money. In the 1990s, it’s about 70%. Similarly, […]


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